Can rooftop honey production survive the current bee crisis

Bees kept on the roof of St. Ermin's Hotel in central London. The chef uses the honey in many dishes.

A keeper tends to a colony of Buckfast bees on the roof of St. Ermin's Hotel. The chef uses the honey in many dishes.

Just as urban bee-keeping gets trendy, London yields are reported to be at their lowest. So what can be done give our city-dwelling bee populations a much-needed boost?
One of the hotel's honey samples revealed 53 different pollen sources ranging from chestnuts to water lily

As a group of young women sip their tea and nibble at the mille-feuille and the finger sandwiches in the St. Ermin’s Hotel Library, the low autumn sun glints on the silverware. In the middle of the table is an open jar of golden honey, the spoon slowly sinking back into the gooey nectar.

The customers at this table – and the others taking Afternoon Tea around them – are perhaps yet to realise that the honey they’ve just drizzled on their scones was harvested from a Buckfast bee colony on the hotel rooftop above their heads.

In the UK capital, the number of honeybee colonies has doubled in the last four years – perhaps part of a growing trend with people wanting to try and reconnect with Nature, or with the idea of having a slice of the wild in their backyard or on their roof terrace. But at the same time, recent years have seen colony collapse disorder making for disturbing headlines and worrisome reading. 

Among other factors, pesticides, monoculture farming, and parasites have all taken a share of the blame for the crisis. But the good news is that with this heightened awareness, more and more individuals and organisations are providing environments for honeybees and are starting up their own hives.

Over in the States, even New York’s Waldorf Astoria has a colony on the 24th floor. And despite the shortfall in this year’s honey harvest, urban bee-keeping is bang on trend in London.

Within its overtly urban landscape, park-rich London has the potential to offer a great environment for bees. Boasting its own micro-climate, this concrete jungle traps heat, meaning that city-dwelling bees can often start foraging earlier in the year and may be able to continue later into the autumn months than rural bees. It’s an appealing prospect to many Londoners, but as Angela Woods of the London Beekeepers’ Association points out, it’s an undertaking “that’s much harder than keeping chickens. After all, you’re taking on a box of 60,000 stinging insects!”

And this summer just gone has dealt a harsh blow to both experienced and novice beekeepers alike. For the first time, the British Beekeepers’ Association (BBKA) issued a mid-summer starvation warning across the country, and its 2012 Honey Survey reported a disappointing average yearly production of just eight pounds of honey per hive, compared to the usual average of 30 pounds.

In fact, London’s yields were the lowest in Britain.

Set against the worldwide crisis for pollinating insects, the coming winter months will be a hard time too for British honeybees. Angela explains: “A colony needs 35 pounds of honey just to get through the winter. They’ll usually need to be topped up with sugar syrup during the winter, but this year, they’ll be relying on this to keep them alive.” Does this affect the health of colony? “It’s not ideal food,” Angela admits. “It doesn’t contain all the natural nutrients bees need. It’s the equivalent of eating fast food for months on end.”

One of the hotel's honey samples revealed 53 different pollen sources ranging from chestnuts to water lily

BBKA has now warned of the longer-term impacts. The poor summer weather may have reduced the successful mating of virgin queen bees and so whether enough new broods have been produced this year will only become apparent next June.

So should this summer’s poor harvest – and a tough winter to come – be enough to put newcomers off? In reality, the science of what makes a successful colony is complex, and the intricacies of what makes urban bees successful - and which factors produce a good honey harvest - is still being worked out. Even Camilla Goddard, an experienced apiarist at Capital Bee, who maintains hives for universities, individuals and companies around London, can’t always spot a pattern. 

“West London and Soho were the first to seal honey and did the best this year; a hive in Notting Hill was next, followed by the hives I manage in East London. South East London, such as Brockley and Lee had a tougher time,” she explains.

“What we do know is that the most successful colonies have access to a wide variety of plants. A honey sample at St Ermin's Hotel, for example, revealed 53 pollen sources ranging from chestnuts to water lily - probably from the pond in St James Park,” she says. “Many people wonder where bees in cities collect pollen from; the rely on trees such as apple, elderflower, lime chestnut, cherry and privet – so don’t cut those hedges!”

Angela agrees: “Although more and more people are now caring for their own colony of bees, we also need to encourage more people to plant pollinator-friendly plants. That way, everyone’s a beekeeper whether you actually keep bees or not.”

*Image courtesy of St Ermin's Hotel.